Just over a year ago I sat in on a quiet day at the School of Theology, University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee. I picked up a book of poetry by RS Thomas and came across the following line:

Does the tune exist when the instruments are silent…

It’s a good question. And, in the current viral-caused exile, I might want to press it in a different direction: Is the tune still discernible when the ambient noise tries to drown it out? Or, as the Psalmist put it: How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

For that is the current task for Christians in the Covid-19 world. The kingdom of God, shaped by sacrifice, compassion, love and mercy, and coloured by defiant hope, courageous realism and grace-filled generosity, does not change. Amid the fear and threat, the invitation to subvert the running bass of restlessness struggles to penetrate the noise and sound a different melody. But, as we are discovering from the stories of individuals and communities giving themselves to the service and care of others, the whispered tune has a habit of breaking through. Listen for it.

For many Christians the shape and contours of worship have changed. In a week. But, the altered reality challenges us as to what lies at the heart of our hope. A building? A sacramental discipline? A devotional formula? Or the sometimes-distant reality of the God who let his Son give it all up until, on that cross, he had nothing left. Then, through the questioning of abandonment, he discovers what is left of God and faith and hope.

RS Thomas also wrote in ‘A Welsh Testament’:

History showed us / He was too big to be nailed to the wall / Of a stone chapel, yet still we crammed him / between the boards of a black book.

Do we really think he can be confined in a book? Or a box?

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought with Zoe Ball on BBC Radio 2 (but from my office in Leeds).

Do you know what it’s like when you get an entire soundtrack running round your head? I do. Maybe it’s got something to do with the strange times in which we live. It’s as if loads of the music in my memory now finds the space to peep out of the undergrowth and sniff the fresh air.

My kids will probably raise their eyes at this, but the loudest echo belongs to one Bruce Cockburn, a Canadian singer-songwriter very few people have heard of. He’s written all sorts of stuff over the last fifty years or more and some of it is fairly gritty. Then he does one with the great line: “Don’t forget about delight.” When you find yourself in times of trouble – as someone else once sang – don’t lose sight of the nice stuff, the delight.

It’s not a bad idea is it? Because it’s too easy just to hear the bad news and find the imagination heading in the wrong direction. What the poets and musicians do is tease us to look at a wider horizon – to expand the range of possibilities beyond the ‘now’. The thing about poetry is that, if you give a bit of time to thinking about words, it opens space for the imagination to get working.

I would say this, wouldn’t I? I read the Bible every day. It’s full of poetry and songs in which the writers express what lies deep within them. They don’t care too much about whether what they say is watertight morally all the time; they just get it out of their system and into the fresh air. Then readers can engage what being a human being looks and feels like to the poet – even if the poet lived and died three thousand years ago.

Most of us are going to need some routine during the weeks ahead. But, we also have a chance to do something new for which there normally isn’t time or space. Like reading a poem each day, for example. Or, how about trying to write my own? Get it onto paper and play with the words? Because when the news is not great, don’t forget about delight.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on the Zoe Ball Show on BBC Radio 2:

Well, Glastonbury seems to have gone well. I caught up with bits of it on the telly, but would love to have been there.

Instead, I found myself a few days ago speaking at the launch of a literature festival. I didn’t know I was speaking until shortly before it began. So, I cast around a bit for an opener and landed on Billy Ocean … if you see what I mean.

I was once in a studio with him and was waiting for him to launch into ‘When the going gets tough the tough get going’, but he didn’t. So, I offered: “When the going gets tough the tough … write poetry.” He laughed.

What I was getting at was that I grew up thinking poetry was a bit wussy – a bit indulgent and fancy – only to discover that it’s actually the poets who deal with the hard stuff of life. And you can include lyricists in that, too. Because they use words and images that get behind the defences and have the power to move and surprise us, shining a different light on something we take for granted or think is just ‘normal’.

It’s no coincidence, then, that the books I read every day – those that make up the Bible – are full of poetry. Jesus never defined the kingdom of God; he just kept saying “It’s like this…” and offered a story or image. And he knew that once you have told a story or evoked a picture, you’ve also given it away and lost control over what people might do with it.

If poetry enables me to look differently, to see differently, and to think differently about God, the world and people, then it shouldn’t come as a surprise that scriptures are full of it. The poets tease the imagination and dig into the complex experiences and emotions of people’s lives. They refuse to let us get away with compartmentalising – you know, keeping your mind in one box, faith in another, experience in another. The poets hold us together.

As Leonard Cohen famously put it: “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in”

This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

It is said we live in interesting times. Europe is on an uncertain political trajectory, the Middle East is challenging, Russia is flexing its muscles, and the United States are about to choose a new president whose influence will reach far beyond their own shores. Who'd be a leader?

But, what is interesting about what the Nobel laureate Bob Dylan called 'Modern Times' is how the arts play around with the world's big issues, shining different lights onto what we see in the news. Jude Law's new film series in which he plays the fictional first American pope appears to be less interested in the power politics of the Vatican and more in what religious power does to the people who wield it. Bruce Springsteen uses music to express protest against the lot of ordinary people in parts of America that are remote from Washington's eyes. Gospel music itself was a creative expression of lament, hope and confidence on the part of people suffering human injustice for generations.

I mention this because I suspect the world needs more poets and artists. And possibly fewer lawyers – although the lawyers I know are wonderful.

Hymn-writer extraordinaire Charles Wesley maintained that we learn our theology not from what we hear from the pulpit, but from what we sing. Put a good tune to it and we'll happily sing anything – occasionally even nonsense. So, he wrote hymns and songs in order to help Christians find a vocabulary for their experiences of God, the world and each other.

Bruce Cockburn, the award-winning Canadian singer-songwriter does a similar thing with words and music, though not to be murdered by a congregation. One song he wrote thirty years ago suggests that the poets and musicians shine a different light on experience and dare us to look differently in order to see and think differently. The chorus goes like this: “Male female slave or free / Peaceful or disorderly / Maybe you and he will not agree / But you need him to show you new ways to see.”

The prophets of the Old Testament got it straight away: use words, images and stories to expose reality and prompt the questions that easily get overlooked by those with the power to preserve.

Jesus got it, too. He told stories and used images that don't just prod the intellect, but scratch away at the imagination.

But, perhaps what this shows us is simply that political vision needs more music and poetry if it is to haunt the imagination and capture hearts. Argument and shouting won't do it. Or, as Byron put it: “What is poetry? – The feeling of a former world and future.”

 

This is the text of this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show with Zoe Ball. It contains ten song titles by guests James and Tony Hadley:

I came across a great photo on twitter yesterday that showed a building with a sign on it that said in big black capitals: POLLING STATION. Above it there was a warning notice that read: Please do not sit on the fence. Brilliant.

But, it's also problematic. Sometimes I wish people would sit on the fence for a bit longer and not feel pushed to jump one way or the other. OK, there are some matters on which I am clear about where I stand; but there are others where the issues are so complex that simply coming down on one side of the argument cannot be done without cost. But, the pressure we sometimes come under to choose makes you feel they're out to get you. “Just say something,” they cry, but what do you do if all you can say is, “God only knows!”?

And, maybe born of frustration, we choose too quickly and later regret the decision we have made. Everybody knows that experience.

I remember the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, wrestling with a difficult ethical conundrum and complaining that people wanted him to decide without recognising that the matter was simply not simple – and that the negative consequences of either choice needed to be reflected on and recognised before choosing. And it wasn't about sex…

So, I am quite happy to be decisive and to make choices. But, sometimes I want to sit on the fence while I think it through. I realise that the fence is uncomfortable, but in a world in which we are pressed to do everything instantly, it is ever more important to sit down, reflect and take time to think.

This is one good reason I have often said that the world needs more poets than lawyers. It is the poets and musicians who hit our imagination sideways and create the headspace in which we learn to reflect before choosing. And it is poets like the Psalmists of the Old Testament who tell the truth, who never give up on love, and who resist the pressure to move on too quickly, always holding on to tomorrow.

Let's hear it for the fence!

 

 

Monogamy is not the first word that comes to mind when the name Leonard Cohen is heard. He was, to say the least, a bit of a lad.

I have just finished Sylvie Simmons' excellent and very readable biography of the great poet and musician. She quotes the Guardian's Robin Denselow describing Cohen's London gigs on his first European tour as being about “self-obsession, cynicism, non-communication; it is two strangers frantically making love in a shadowy hotel bedroom.” Perhaps this observation was more prescient than the critic knew at the time.

Leonard went through women like the London to Edinburgh train goes through stations. He was insatiable. And the tortuous process of writing, thinking and – eventually – performing accompanied his relationships with a self-referential singlemindedness that is both impressive and shocking. His approach to sex is as hard to admire as his stamina is hard to ignore.

But, as with many great artists, it is out of the flawed humanity, this wrestling with spirituality and sensuality, that their pips get squeezed and the fruit is pressed out.

Or is it?

What is clear with Leonard Cohen is that not once does he dissemble, lie or pretend to be what he is not. Selfish and self-interested he might be (although the way he fulfils his responsibilities towards his children is honourable and his generosity to friends and disadvantaged people – see the stuff about his gigs in mental institutions in Europe – remarkable), but he is not a hypocrite. His walking out on commitments to women seems to me to be deplorable, but none of his women seems to be surprised.

What I found moving about his 'pension restoration' world tour in 2008 was that here was a man of 75 who is now at peace with himself. Maybe, as George Melly once observed with evident relief and gratitude, age silences the torment of a rampant and enslaving libido. Cohen performs with humour, generosity, humility and wonderful skill – at ease with himself and the musicians who bring his music to life.

When I once expressed my admiration for Cohen in a blog post, I got a blasting response to the effect that he is simply a shameful louche. All I can say is: so was Mozart, but I haven't heard anyone suggest his liturgical settings should not be used in church.

Cohen comes over as a remarkable artist and a man whose suffering and searching has lasted a life time, leaving in his wake as many casualties as credits. But, I guess, like the older men in John 8, who, having demanded that the woman caught in adultery be stoned (and not in the sense that Cohen regularly got stoned), began to leave first, those of us who have lived longer recognise our own catalogue of failings and should be less swift to judge. Cohen, at least, is relentlessly honest.

So, now I am on to Christopher Browning's 'Ordinary Men' – another shocking exploration of the human condition and our easy acquaintance with avoidable cruelty. More anon.

 

1. Trying to prepare a half-appropriate sermon for the Closing Service of the Kirchentag in Hamburg on 5 May. But, my head is full of 'stuff'.

2. Trying to sort chapter of academic book for the most patient editor in the world. Need to source quotes, but am away from my books.

3. Currently speaking at a parish weekend in Cumbria – two talks done, one to go (tomorrow). And the big yellow thing in sky has emerged, bringing with it warmth, people and lack of concentration.

4. Trying to read TS Eliot's Four Quartets, but too many other things keep intruding. Like the progress of my hopeless fantasy league football team.

5. Tired. Nothing to say.